Pete Gillard reports
500 people braved torrential rain on Saturday to march through Wellington, Shropshire in defence of the NHS.
Local health bosses have long wanted to close one of Shropshire’s two A&Es and an acute hospital in an area that covers over three times the size of Greater London. At a secret meeting a week ago, the hospital bosses decided that the one to close would be the Princess Royal Hospital in Wellington. The Shropshire, Telford & Wrekin Defend Our NHS campaign quickly learned of the decision and publicised it. It became the main story in the local press and radio, and featured on both BBC and ITV news for the West Midlands.
The campaign immediately called a demonstration, with four days’ notice, to demand that the closure decision is reversed.
The Labour controlled Telford & Wrekin Council, which covers Wellington, were requested by the campaign to give their support to the march, which they did. Many Telford councillors marched and were joined by Labour, Green and Lib Dem councillors form Shropshire.
Speakers at a pre-march rally were united in their opposition to cuts and closures at either hospital, warning of the dangers of ‘divide and rule’ tactics from NHS decision makers.
Tony Robinson, a retired GP from Ludlow, gave a medical perspective, and warned of the risks associated with travelling long distances to A&E. He talked about working as a doctor at Shrewsbury Hospital before the Princess Royal Hospital was built, remembering the time it took patients to travel to Shrewsbury. He commented “We must fight and fight and fight to maintain the A&E and the Women’s and Children’s Centre here in Telford and work with Shrewsbury for two A&E departments for our county”.
Shaun Davies, Leader of Telford and Wrekin Council, made a powerful argument for unity. He said, “We must not fall into the Shrewsbury versus Telford, the Telford versus Shrewsbury argument” and said that it was nonsense to think that a county the size of Shropshire does not require two A&Es. He ended calling on Jeremy Hunt to intervene, and demanded “Health bosses must stop this madness now”.
Gill George, Chair of Shropshire, Telford and Wrekin Defend Our NHS, reinforced the need for unity. She said, “Do you want to know the worst nightmare of health bosses? The worst nightmare of health bosses is that we stand united, Telford and Wrekin people and Shropshire people in absolute unity, to send a single message to them: You will not touch the Princes Royal Hospital, you will not touch the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital“. Gill described it as utterly unacceptable to close the A&E and Women’s and Children’s Centre at the Princess Royal, and the Lingen Davies Cancer Centre at the Royal Shrewsbury. She condemned the £147.5 million cuts every year being pushed through the local NHS, and called on MPs to ensure adequate NHS funding instead of supporting ‘their’ A&E and being willing to let everyone else die.
The mood from the hundreds of people on the march was overwhelmingly for both A&Es and both hospitals to remain – for the simple reason that this is what people need.
The demonstration was important because it built on the work of the campaign building over the last two years. The health bosses had hoped a divide and rule strategy would divide campaigners against each other. Telford Council itself initially said simply that if there was to be a single A&E it should be in Wellington – accepting that one had to go. But the campaign has produced evidence that even the health bosses have had to acknowledge that the closure of either A&E will lead to people dying unnecessarily.
Initially the health bosses claimed the closure was necessary on clinical grounds. All the local media and politicians accepted that argument. But the campaign has shown the closure is purely on financial grounds. The local media all now accept this as a fact. The campaign is now seen as the authoritative voice for what is happening in the NHS in Shropshire – three TV interviews last week, two more scheduled this week, multiple radio interviews, and double page spreads in the local paper. The health bosses do not know what has hit them.
We’re not letting the local MPs off the hook. All six of them are Tories. One of them, Philip Dunne, was appointed Minister of State for health by Teresa May. He has responsibility, among other things, for NHS finance. His experience – he was previously Minister for Defence Procurement responsible for buying Trident! We are demanding the Government provides and extra £150 million a year for Shropshire to cover the funding deficit. The MPs are worried because this demand is going down well with their own supporters.
While most of the campaign’s activists are on the left, including many Jeremy Corbyn supporters from the Labour Party, it has a much broader base – many people have never been involved in any campaigning before. It’s not a campaign that is simply angry. Shropshire, Telford & Wrekin Defend Our NHS is there to win. We’ve won victories along the way. We stopped them closing one of the A&Es last winter as an “temporary emergency measure”. We’ve forced them to reopen a stroke rehab unit in Shrewsbury they initially denied had been closed. As Gill George put it, their current proposals “are so fragile, if we all blew together they would collapse.”
Only one demonstration but a sign of things to come. And our health bosses are worried.